Ballin’ out

Red Eye Chicago - - Winter Sports Preview - By K.C. John­son

The Chicago Bulls start their reg­u­lar sea­son Thurs­day, play­ing away against the Philadel­phia 76ers. This is a young team with plenty of work to do, so there are go­ing to be con­cerns. Tri­bune’s K.C. John­son fielded some press­ing con­cerns in the pre­sea­son about the Bulls’ de­fense, coach­ing and long-term plans. Is this the worst de­fen­sive team in Bulls his­tory?

That record be­longs to the 1985-86 Bulls if you’re us­ing de­fen­sive rat­ing as your met­ric and the ex­pan­sion 1966-67 Bulls if you’re go­ing straight points al­lowed. The 1985-86 team, which in­ci­den­tally was Jerry Krause’s first sea­son as gen­eral man­ager, fin­ished 30-52 and had a league-worst de­fen­sive rat­ing of 112.4. The 1966-67 Bulls went 33-48, made the play­offs and al­lowed 116.9 points per game.

If the Bulls de­fend the way they did at the start of the pre­sea­son, they would be lucky to sniff 30 vic­to­ries.

Is there any in­ter­nal con­cern about Jim Boylen’s de­fen­sive coach­ing, or is the pres­sure on the play­ers to get it done? Watch­ing pre­sea­son, some of these guys who have been in the sys­tem two or three years are show­ing the same lapses.

Boylen, who is Fred Hoiberg’s as­so­ciate head coach, seems to be well-re­garded in­ter­nally. He’s a vet­eran as­sis­tant who preaches ac­count­abil­ity. He also puts in off­sea­son work to de­velop dif­fer­ent re­la­tion­ships with play­ers, some­thing that of­ten is bet­ter for as­sis­tant coaches to do than head coaches.

Boylen largely is re­spon­si­ble for the de­fense. And for a fran­chise that typ­i­cally has shunned switch­ing on screens, the Bulls fi­nally are try­ing to join the way the league is trend­ing and do­ing more of that this sea­son. There have been some, shall we say, grow­ing pains thus far.

This isn’t to ab­solve Boylen, but the

Bulls are a young team. They also fea­ture his­tor­i­cally mi­nus de­fend­ers. Now, there’s no rea­son some­one like, say, Zach LaVine, with his ath­leti­cism, can’t be a bet­ter de­fender. And even some­one like Jabari Parker, who has been chal­lenged at that end, can be­come a solid team de­fender. I al­ways point to the ex­am­ple of Kyle Korver, who de­spite not pos­sess­ing the most lat­eral quick­ness shined in Tom Thi­bodeau’s sys­tem as a team de­fender. He rou­tinely stripped play­ers with solid po­si­tion­ing and quick hands. And he hus­tled back on de­fense. The Bulls, un­der Hoiberg and Boylen and the rest of the staff, need to do the same. Why haven’t the Bulls con­sid­ered bring­ing in a vet­eran point guard to back up Kris Dunn? The cur­rent back­ups, in­clud­ing Dunn to an ex­tent, have trou­ble run­ning an NBA of­fense and can’t seem to make a sim­ple en­try pass. Doesn’t this hin­der the de­vel­op­ment of guys like Lauri Markka­nen or Wen­dell Carter Jr.?

Maybe this got lost in trans­la­tion, but the Bulls are go­ing through a re­build. They want as few vet­er­ans as pos­si­ble. And they’re de­ter­mined to ride out the Cameron Payne ex­pe­ri­ence.

One thing you’ve heard man­age­ment and the coach­ing staff con­sis­tently say about this ros­ter is hav­ing it fea­ture mul­ti­ple ball­han­dlers and fa­cil­i­ta­tors. It’s try­ing to be­come a more mod­ern, ver­sa­tile ros­ter. So in the­ory, most ev­ery­one should be able to han­dle the ball and make en­try passes.

The for­mula for a cham­pi­onship-con­tend­ing team seems to have a min­i­mum re­quire­ment of three All-Star­cal­iber play­ers, with one of them be­ing a top-tier star a la LeBron James or Kevin Du­rant. Does man­age­ment view LaVine-Markka­nen-Carter as a trio ca­pa­ble of com­pet­ing for cham­pi­onships in the next three to five years? Or does man­age­ment still think they’re an­other star player or two short of con­tend­ing? If so, are they plan­ning to ad­dress this through the draft or free agency? Con­sid­er­ing the past sub­par free-agent sign­ings, wouldn’t it make more sense to have an­other tank-athon sea­son for an­other shot at a high draft pick?

Man­age­ment has been pretty trans­par­ent about its plan since trad­ing Jimmy But­ler. Try to stock­pile as many young as­sets with ob­vi­ously the hope one turns into a bona fide star and worry about ros­ter fit later. Man­age­ment ob­vi­ously hopes LaVine, Markka­nen and Carter can form the foun­da­tion for cham­pi­onship con­tention. You could prob­a­bly throw Kris Dunn in there as a long-term fit as well. But no­body, in­clud­ing man­age­ment, yet knows if it will hap­pen or it needs more pieces. Man­age­ment also has stressed its beloved fi­nan­cial flex­i­bil­ity. And the Bulls pro­ject to have am­ple salary-cap space this sum­mer. So to an­swer your sec­ond ques­tion, I’d guess they’re tar­get­ing free agency more than a high draft pick as of now. Af­ter all, John Pax­son said he doesn’t want to live through an­other sea­son like last sea­son again.


Chicago Bulls for­ward Wen­dell Carter Jr. is de­fended by In­di­ana Pac­ers for­ward Myles Turner dur­ing an NBA pre­sea­son bas­ket­ball game.

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